Virginia Makins profiles a brilliant career
David Winkley had just opened an enormous greetings card when I met him, one of dozens of messages that had flooded in from former pupils at Grove primary school in Birmingham to congratulate him on his knighthood.
This card was from sisters, Farrhat and Naheed. Farrhat went to Oxford and the London School of Economics, and is now training to become a barrister. Naheed has just finished a PhD in mathematics and aeronautical engineering at Imperial College. "We will always appreciate what you have done for us," they wrote. "To a brilliant teacher - and there we were, thinking we could stop calling you 'Sir'!" For nearly 25 years Sir David Winkley was headteacher at Grove in Handsworth, one of the most deprived areas in Europe. According to Winkley its mainly poor, multi-ethnic neighbourhood has moved in his time there from rage and race riots to a kind of ironic acceptance. At 57, and two years into a very busy "retirement", Winkley is now a much loved and respected personality in the community, but when he first arrived at the school as Birmingham's youngest primary head in 1974, soon after the Handsworth riots, he had to work for acceptance. Former colleagues say his belief in children and parents gradually won their trust.
He grew up in Birmingham, with a background that gave him experience of both sides of the class divide: his father went to public school, his mother was working class. At 10 - a year early - he won a scholarship to King Edward's, the prestigious Birmingham boys' school which was then a direct grant school. Another scholarship took him to Cambridge where he wrote short stories for Granta, read English and specialised in Dickens.
He wanted to be a journalist and was offered a job on The Guardian. But by then he had become passionate about politics and religion, and a school inspector persuaded him to try supply teaching during an interview mainly spent discussing poetry and philosophy.
He then joined the founding group for the Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, where he worked with Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall to develop academic study of the media - then a very new idea. He continued supply teaching during the summer vacation, discovering the joys of primary schools, and went on to teach full-time for about four years, ending up as deputy head at Perry Common primary school under a "brilliant" primary head, Llion Rees.
Winkley showed his entrepreneurial qualities early on, setting up an outdoor residential centre for city primary children at Atherstone, north of Birmingham. It is still going strong today, owned and managed by 20 primary schools. He risked buying three old pre-fabricated buildings for pound;150 each and persuaded a landowner to donate some land. He then talked the local Rotary club into supporting the planning application and charmed an architect into donating his services.
It was a prelude to a career of successful fundraising for new institutions. Winkley now has an amazing spread of high-powered contacts and supporters in industry, the arts and Government. He founded The National Primary Centre and its Trust, which support a buzzing network of primary heads and teachers, working from the ground up at a time when too much is being imposed from the top down. Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, calls it "a kind of French resistance". The Children's University, his brainchild, now offers out-of-school enrichment at 14 centres across the country, reaching 10,000 children a year in Birmingham alone.
He first caught Tony Blair's eye in 1995 and got a mention in one of his pre-election speeches with his after-school GCSE maths classes for ten-year-olds. Last summer 13 Year 6 children took and passed GCSE maths and 40 will sit it this summer.
The Saturday morning Advanced Maths Centres, pioneered at Grove and run by the National Primary Trust, have developed into an electric combination of hand-picked primary and secondary staff and sixth form volunteers teaching bright 10-year-olds nominated by a number of primary schools.
"That idea will run and run," says Winkley, clearly excited by the social mixture that is created when some ambitious parents "drive their Mercedes into Handsworth at the weekend".
With the National Primary Centre he has also been developing Rainbow maths, an accreditation scheme rather like Associated Board music exams, where children can take tests and move on when they think they are ready, with the advanced units leading to GCSE.
Testing and selection don't faze Winkley, partly because as a Birmingham boy he grew up in a city with some of the oldest selective schools in Britain. He and his wife, Lindy - a senior consultant psychiatrist at Birmingham Children's Hospital - both attended the King Edward schools, and they paid fees for their two children, Kate and Joe, after they left Grove, aged 11.
He is in no doubt that the King Edward High School for Girls' school is "almost certainly the best school in Britain". By best he means stimulating, imaginative - "not old fashioned" - and offering an "intelligent diagnosis of its pupils' needs".
He wants research "to put into black and white why the independent sector at its best succeeds so well". "I don't think the quality is to do with selection, though that makes it easier to teach," he says. "It's to do with staff stability, continuity of culture, a genuine commitment to a wide curriculum, and marvellous resources. The deep issue is the quality-resource link, which is a subject we're not facing."
Apart from a very few quirks, he says, success in league tables can be calculated by a formula: mean parent income plus mean school income (including capital assets), multiplied by a selectivity factor (where Grove would score 0 and the most selective grammar schools 5).
Encouraged, but not forced, by Winkley, there has been a "steady trickle" of children from Grove into the independent sector, mostly on assisted places or scholarships. In addition, around 15 per cent a year pass the ll-plus for Birmingham grammar schools. Four per cent is the average for Birmingham primaries.
Some children refuse the grammar places and opt for the local comprehensive. "And I suspect they do just as well," says Winkley.
In the late Sixties, after a few years' teaching in Birmingham, Winkley returned to university, this time at Oxford, where he took a PhD in philosophy. He could have stayed there, but the Grove headship came up, and Birmingham lured him back.
During his long headship he took two more sabbatical years at Oxford. In the first he was given a fellowship at Nuffield College, and wrote Diplomats and Detectives, based on his research into the different styles of local authority school inspectorates. His main conclusion was that local authorities which encouraged free-booting, independent-minded inspectors and advisers had more effect on schools than highly centralised ones where inspectors worked to tightly controlled frameworks.
In his second sabbatical he set up the National Primary Trust.
His headship at Grove has been an inspiration and example to many, not least to fellow teachers. In Birmingham alone there are at least 10 headteachers who formerly worked at Grove. Thousands of visitors have tramped round the school, looking at the enrichment groups in writing, maths and philosophy, the unit for very difficult children excluded from other schools, the impressive art and music and drama, the pioneering assessment and monitoring and curriculum planning.
But teachers who've worked with Winkley say the most important thing they took away with them was the ethos. Above all, several told me, they embrace Winkley's strong philosophy that puts children at the centre of the school. "That changes the nature of the place," said Tracey Stone, head of Rookery junior school. "In some schools the 'centre' is the senior management team or a group of parents or governors."
She added, as did everyone I talked to: "One of the first things that struck me when I went to Grove as a probationer was how quickly David notices people's strengths and encourages - bullies - you into doing something with them. That went for children too."
Gilroy Brown, head of Foundry School, remembers his astonishment soon after he first joined the staff at Grove when a difficult child turned up in Winkley's office after some alarming incident. There was no "bollocking", only a long, quiet, rational discussion. "Afterwards he told me that the only way to instil self-discipline in children is to get them to reflect on what they were doing, that 'they all have a redeeming quality'. I've never forgotten the way he put it," said Brown.
Winkley himself says: "At the heart of what we were doing was building children's sense of self-worth and intellectual confidence. But you have to be tough with children too."
At Grove, teachers also had to be tough enough to stand up to a head who was constantly suggesting a new project when they were still implementing the last but three. "I can't stand back and relax," says Winkley.
But those who flourished say that life at Grove was exhilarating, not exhausting, even though the head seemed to have a thousand new questions every day, and (particularly in the early years) every class had some difficult children.
Although he retired two years ago, Winkley is still in the thick of it. He is teaching philosophy at Grove once a week, nurturing the National Primary Centre, working as a member of the Government's standards task force...and writing a book about Grove and Handsworth.
He crackles with ideas and insights into teaching, with examples taken from philosophers, artists and musicians. "He's an energy-giver, not an energy-consumer," says Brown.
One of his core beliefs is that teaching and learning should be an adventure. "Teachers have maps and know-ledge, and plan the route, but they should never be sure where they and the children will end up. It is about setting up debate and dialectic between minds."
Teachers will never be paid as well as comparable professions, he says, so it is vital that they find the job exciting and satisfying. "The National Curriculum and new Government initiatives are just ever more detailed maps. The Government has to be aware that if they try to impose a template, they will drive out brilliant teachers. Everything has to be translated through teachers' minds. What's at the heart of good schools is energising brains."
He has written a closely-argued critique of OFSTED, based on a National Primary Centre survey of inspectors and schools. He believes its methodology is another factor demoralising and driving out good teachers.
Basing critical judgments on observation of 20-minutes sections of lessons, he says, is like trying to review a play - its quality, performance and the audience reaction - on a randomly selected 20 minutes. Inevitably, the different predelictions of inspectors make a big difference. "Schools need nursing, not surgery," he says. "A failing school may need surgery - but it will need nursing afterwards. We need to train skilled consultants who can set up a dialogue in a school, and act as a catalyst. There are superb people around, but it is very patchy."
He is obsessed with the entitlement for all children, whatever their social background, to experience quality thinking, texts, art, and music, and to receive emotional nourishment from schools. "Schools must be open until 9pm, and we must create wider opportunities, using parents and grandparents and students and information technology."
Perhaps Brighouse best summed up the basis of his influence when he said:
"David has an inexhaustible supply of intellectual curiosity, and irresistible enthusiasm. And because they have been rooted in a school, his ideas have a currency which is unchallengeable.
QUESTIONS OF GOOD AND BAD - NEVER INDIFFERENT
With immense conviction, a girl in David Winkley's philosophy lesson says:
"There's an alien standing just behind that boy over there."
The 22 children from Years 5 and 6 have each been asked to make a statement. Most of them make factual statements, such as "I am wearing school uniform". "Can we distinguish between different kinds of statement?" asks Winkley.
A boy points out that some aren't true. "Which?" "The one about the alien."
"How do you know it's not true?" asks a girl. "You can't always trust what you perceive from your senses."
Winkley warmly encourages all contributions. He then moves back to his main topic - what we mean when we say something is good. "What's the difference between a good chair and a good boy?" After some discussion, a bright girl summarises: "The boy's got a life and he can do what he wants, how he wants. The chair hasn't got a life and hasn't got feelings."
How do we know a chair hasn't got feelings, probes Winkley. By now the discussion is in full flight, with almost all children taking part.
"But how do you know if it makes a noise when you hit it, that it isn't saying 'Ow' ?" asks a boy.
Someone mentions free will. A boy asks what she means. "The will to do something, having a mind to make decisions. Chairs don't, as far as we know".
"That's a good phrase - 'as far as we know' " says Winkley. The children break into small groups to discuss what makes a good picture, or pet, or object.
"We think that picture is good because it has dark colours and expresses dark feelings," says one group, and Winkley strongly endorses the idea that good art conveys feelings.
Finally they return to an earlier discussion about what makes a good society. "Everyone should be treated equally," says a boy. A girl volunteers that for an equal society, you would have to abolish money. This leads to heated debate. Someone argues that if you spent 10 years building a business you have the right to keep the money.
At the end of the course some children write quite complex essays about their ideas. "The thinking of the ablest children rubs off on the rest," says Winkley.
"Their minds are stretched, they learn to listen and clarify. If you get the steps right you can take them into deep water."